Su Lum: Slumming
December 27, 2011
Dinner on a cruise ship always is a surprise. Unless you’ve zipped down to Deck 2 to check out the menu, you don’t know what the choices will be (though you know they’ll all be good), and you never know who your fellow diners will be.
My friend Hilary and I get open seating, meaning that you can eat whenever you like and will be seated at a table with several other passengers for the next two hours. Two hours. Minimum.
It was somewhat ironic that the Holland America cruise we had scheduled because it was a week of a full moon was chosen by a contingent of 400 representatives of Fox News: We had picked a Fox News cruise! Very loud blowhards, with shoebox-size name tags, whose purpose seemed to be to proselytize to the rest of us. (“Just say, ‘Anyone except Obama!'” one was heard to advise another.)
Luckily we escaped being seated for a two-hour dinner with any of those guys, and the pre-dinner “feeling out” was pretty funny: “Are you one of them?” “No, are you?” “No.” “Whew!” And then we could get on with it.
Dinner on a cruise ship is kind of like being stuck in an elevator with strangers, finding out that behind both bland and blatant exteriors lay stories that could curl your hair, things you would never guess that come out when you sit down for two hours with people you’ll probably never see again. It’s kind of an art, and regular cruisers are masters at it.
An unremarkable couple turned out to be martini-drinking mother and son, rabid football fans, and she one of those “house of lights” holiday home decorators. “Even St. Patrick’s Day?” Hilary asked. “Absolutely,” said the son, whose job it was to string the bulbs.
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We had a great dinner with a couple from England (“The U.K.”), he an early-retired accountant/executive and she still getting used to having him underfoot at home. They were widely traveled, politically attuned (pro-Clinton, anti-Bushes, pro-Obama, anti-Blair, pro-Thatcher). We could just sit there and soak it in.
At a cocktail party, his son said to his friend, “I fancy her,” and the woman in question across the room crooked her finger at him. She was deaf and a professional lip-reader, now his daughter-in-law. And, wait for it: He was born in an air-raid shelter during the war, along with a twin brother who died but knew no further details. Mysteries. Secrets.
What were the chances that we would sit down with a retired OB-GYN and a retired obstetrical nurse who had never met but lived five miles away from each other? After the nurse’s husband determined that we were neither a part, nor supporters, of Fox News, we got into a spirited discussion during which it came out that the nurse, who looked fit as a fiddle, had recently had two 2-foot-long titanium shafts inserted into her spine and was now able to ride on the back of her husband’s Harley. When she said she also had multiple sclerosis, I bubbled with questions that ran from “Do you set off security alarms?” (surprisingly, no) to her thoughts on end-of-life options.
That night I had ordered lamb chops (delicious) but coveted the husband’s chile relleno. He suggested I order one for dessert, and it was the best dessert of the trip, and the conversation was so intriguing that the next day Hilary and I had them over for Cointreau on our deck (“company!”) before enjoying a second meal with them (the last).
Altogether high points for the dining experience.